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Memories of Michael Bond In many ways author Michael Bond embodied some of the qualities that made his fictional creation of Paddington Bear such an enduring success. The famous bear, impeccably mannered and reliably forthright (if disaster-prone) always epitomises decency and Michael often spoke of how Paddington seemed absolutely real to him, his study in North London (not far from Paddington Station) decorated with incarnations of the bear in many guises. Michael was a prolific author, also writing The Herbs (a children’s TV series), the adventures of guinea pig Olga da Polga and the tales for adults of detective Monsieur Pamplemousse and canine sidekick Pommes Frites, but it was the bear from Darkest Peru who would ensure his literary immortality. He was born in Reading in 1926, a BBC trainee engineer there before entering the Forces in 1943. He’d always enjoyed writing and published his first short story in the late 1940s. After the war he worked at the company’s Monitoring Services in Caversham (before gravitating to life as a BBC cameraman) where he recalled interesting colleagues including “a Russian who’d escaped from Russia in a grand piano...and a Polish man who had fled his homeland with a horse. He used to ride it into work and tie it up at the cycle rack!” Despite exemplifying the best of British spirit Paddington himself was a refugee of course and a close friend of Mr. Gruber, the Hungarian immigrant who shares the bear’s cosy elevenses of cocoa and buns. Chatting with Michael was always a pleasure for he was a gracious, amiable host who’d become very animated discussing his beloved bear, his eyes sparkling as he mentioned Paddington’s various exploits. He was typically modest remembering how he’d inadvertently discovered the inspiration for his famous bear. “It sounds like a sob story. One Christmas Eve I was in Oxford Street and it started to snow. I went into Selfridges to find shelter and found myself in the toy department and there was just this one small bear left on the shelf. I wanted a stocking-filler for my wife so I bought the bear.” Writing back home in London his eye fell serendipitously upon the small bear. “I had no ideas as such but looking around my small flat I saw this bear sitting on the mantelpiece. And I thought ‘I wonder what would happen if’…” Literary history followed as his first book A Bear Called Paddington (1958) was hatched over a matter of days, the phenomenal acclaim following this and subsequent books allowing him to write full-time from the mid- Sixties. When creating his bear he’d recalled seeing trains from London at the start of the Second World War arriving crammed with evacuees. “They all had a label around their necks, each carrying a little suitcase with their prized possessions. It stuck in my mind so I gave Paddington a label, ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you’. It just felt right.” And as to the bear’s name? “I called him Paddington because it used to be my commuting station and I liked the name,” said Michael. “It’s got a solid West Country sound.” Bestowing upon his bear the duffle coat he himself was wearing at the time and giving him a decided fondness for marmalade sandwiches, Paddington’s credibility as a talking bear was always tacitly accepted, assisted no doubt by Peggy Fortnum’s wonderfully vital illustrations. Paddington’s longevity brought his author undoubted happiness. Some of the bear’s broad appeal derives from his civilised life at 32 Windsor Gardens with the Brown family. Michael once reflected, “I think people are slightly envious of his lifestyle because the speed of life has increased all the time...whereas Paddington lives life at his own pace,” and it’s clearly something that strikes a chord with many for the first Paddington feature film of 2014 was the highest-grossing UK film of that year, its sequel eagerly anticipated this winter. In one of our last communications mooting a future interview he wryly wrote with enthusiasm reminiscent of his famous bear: “If I had a helicopter I would be straight over but alas that isn’t the case! I’m not entirely firing on all cylinders yet but am almost there and it would be good to have a gettogether to exchange notes on this, that and the other.” “He was a hopeful bear at heart,” Michael once wrote of Paddington and the same could surely be said for him, often writing daily until his recent death in June at the age of 91. In the first film the author was given a cameo role where he raises a celebratory glass to Paddington and it seems only fitting now that we offer him the same appreciative gesture, thanking Michael wholeheartedly for his creation of “a very rare sort of bear” who has certainly carved an indelible niche in children’s fiction. AMANDA HODGES 54 THIS ENGLAND, Winter, 2017
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